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Exploring Natural Art with Preschoolers: Focus on Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy Artist Study

One way to interest children in nature is to do an artist study, or a study of an artist who works with natural materials. An artist study is similar to an author study, where a whole class does a deep dive into the books of one author, learning their methods and common themes and emulating their art and literary styles. Going deep into the work of one artist can help children understand the planning, compositional choices and decision making that go into a work of art.

Last spring we did an artist study focused on Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a sculptor and photographer who specializes in creating art from natural and found objects. Goldsworthy’s projects are site-specific outdoor creations that are meant to be changed over time by wind, rain, erosion and other forces of nature, eventually disappearing. The fact that Goldsworthy brings no tools to his projects – he uses only his hands and tools found on site to shape his art – makes his art accessible to children and easy to produce on a child’s level.

Step one in any artist study is to generate interest. We were already deep into a study of rocks, so I checked out Andy Goldsworthy’s books “A Collaboration with Nature” and “Stones” from the local library. The books quickly became the most popular titles in our classroom library. The children poured over the artist’s sculptures using leaves, rocks and other natural items and questioned how he made impossible looking arches of rocks or nests of sticks hold together.

The most natural extension of the books was to create our own natural art deep in the forest. Before building, we needed to explore the science behind some of his creations, learning how to use mud to make pieces stick together, sticks to whittle other sticks to points and principles of balance to stack rocks. We also needed to scour the area for raw materials of leaves, rocks, flower petals and sticks and then decide on the best sites for our creations. Even though most of Goldsworthy’s work is not representational forms, the children stuck to recognizable shapes and structures that could be named. They created a birthday cake, tiny trees, a flag, train tracks, and an egg in a nest.

Inside the classroom, I brought in additional books that demonstrate the way nature can make its own art. My favorites examples for children are “If Rocks Could Sing,” by Leslie McGuirk and “Discovering Nature’s Alphabet,” by Krystina Castella. I also made cross-cultural connections to the sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks, which, like Goldsworthy’s work, are also meant to be impermanent creations. Our light table became a surface for the children’s own mandalas and empty frames set on a table covered with white bulletin board paper became invitations for the children to create another type of natural art. Like Goldsworthy’s, the children’s nature art was permanently captured only through photographs, some of which I took and some, again emulating Goldsworthy, where the children composed the shots.

Our final Goldsworthy-inspired project was to create a permanent place for the children to create impermanent art. We were inspired to create a zen rock garden. The children dug holes in which we placed shallow garden bowls filled with sand. We placed large, interestingly-shaped rocks in the sand gardens for the children to move and remove to create artwork outside. The zen rock garden is now a lasting part of our school’s playground for future groups of children to use.

There are many other nature artists who create work accessible to children. I suggest Jacek Tylicki, whose process of leaving canvasses outside for nature to “paint” them is easy to replicate with children. Richard Schilling is another natural artist who uses leaves and sticks in a process that closely resembles mandalas. Soon, we will be taking a look at the twig and bamboo sculptures built by Hannes Wingate. Currently, we are in the midst of a unit on birds and found out that the creator of 2014’s “Burnside Nest” has another public art project scheduled locally. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about an artist who is creating with nature right in our backyard.

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